SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – When a Cadillac Escalade ferrying polygamist church leader Warren Jeffs was pulled over in Nevada in August, authorities found $54,000 cash, 15 cell phones, portable radios, wigs and four laptops.
The documents stored on those computers was to be the subject of a legal tug-of-war Monday as Jeffs’ attorneys try to convince a judge that the laptops contain privileged communication between the spiritual leader and his followers.
Jeffs, the 51-year-old leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was picked up in a traffic stop near Las Vegas on federal warrants after evading prosecution in Utah and Arizona for nearly two years.
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He’s now in a southern-Utah county jail pending an April trial on two felony counts of rape as an accomplice related to a 2001 arranged marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her cousin.
Attorneys for the United Effort Plan Trust, which holds $110 million in church property, and Shem Fischer, a former follower who sued Jeffs after being fired, want U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jones in Las Vegas to grant them standing in Jeffs’ case.
They also want access to papers, letters and electronic documents being held by the FBI.
In court documents, Jeffs’ Las Vegas attorney Richard Wright contends the information on the laptops is “sacred and confidential” because it includes matters of church doctrine and private communications between Jeffs and his followers.
Wright did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment. In court papers he asks the court to return the seized evidence to Jeffs.
Shem Fischer’s attorneys disagrees. “The documents may shed more information as to where (church) assets have been hidden, in what form they are held and where they are held,” Las Vegas attorney Ariel Stern said.
In 2002, Fischer sued Jeffs, the church and a church-controlled cabinet company, for religious discrimination. Fischer said he was fired after he left the FLDS faith. He won a default judgment and now wants to collect the balance of what he’s owed.
Like Fischer, Bruce Wisan wants to know if Jeffs’ papers and electronic records will lead to church assets that rightfully belong to the trust and should benefit all current and former church members.
The trust is comprised of nearly all the property in Hildale, Colorado City, Ariz., and British Columbia, where church members live in assigned housing. A Utah judge made Wisan overseer of the trust in 2005 after finding Jeffs and other church leaders were fleecing it for personal gain.
Jeffs is also facing felony charges in Mohave County, Ariz., for other arranged marriages. He’s expected to be extradited there following the Utah case.
Original Title: Polygamist’s Papers Topic of Hearing